In October of 2012 our community was visited by a weather system that came to be known as Superstorm Sandy. We heeded the warnings but also viewed them with the skeptical optimism that convinces us that really bad things only happen to other people. We expected some rain and some wind, and the possibility that we may lose the use of electric power for a few hours. We secured the outdoor furniture, packed the freezer with bags of ice and filled the bathtubs with water.
Torrential rains never hit us but powerful winds and high tides were enough to inflict substantial damage. Sandy ripped off roofs, uprooted trees and flooded streets and homes. Many were evacuated by boat as the sea filled roadways and basements. South of us, houses were removed from their foundations and swept blocks away from their original locations. An amusement park was relocated to the ocean. Damage to real estate and personal property was extensive and widespread.
Electricity stopped flowing a few hours into the storm as utility poles fell like dominoes and generating stations flooded. Gasoline stopped flowing from electric gas pumps. Electronic technology vanished. Cable television, land line telephones and internet access were gone. Cellular telephone service was sporadic. Millions of people were about to be disconnected for days and weeks.
At first, the loss of technology was disorienting. Accustomed to continuous broadcasts of events in real time, we waited days for news that others outside of our area were witnessing instantly on public television. Local agencies made public service robo-calls to dead telephones. Web pages were updated for users without internet access. The usual menu of cable television channels and internet web sites was reduced to a few stations accessible with battery-operated radios.
Not long after Sandy left the area, humans began to do what humans do best. They interacted with each other – face to face. Local stores opened to offer what inventory was on hand. Restaurants with gas stoves served food in the dark. As days without power passed, people joined together. We talked to neighbors we had never met. Some cooked food before it spoiled and distributed meals to others. Some traveled miles to find ice and distributed bags to those in need. Others stretched electrical cords across lawns to share a generator. Gradually, we remembered how to live without twenty-four access to television, the internet and email. We engaged in conversation, and we connected to each other on a personal level.
When the lights came back on, it was anticlimactic. Yes, there was collective relief that we wouldn’t be spending another night in the cold and the dark. But the old toys had become strangers. At first, we treated our old friend technology exactly for what it is – a tool. We checked a few emails; we viewed week-old stories of the devastation and the cleanup efforts on television and the internet. Eventually, however, we settled back into our routine where artificial connectivity mimics genuine human intercourse.
Technology launches probes deep into space, routinely cures diseases that were fatal to our ancestors and allows us to connect to a global marketplace. It provides a plethora of research and educational outlets, instant communications of current events and nearly unlimited entertainment.
Technology also makes us lazy by thinking and acting for us. It dulls our consciousness with mind-numbing diversions. It replaces genuine human interactions with artificial connectedness. Constantly-available communication keeps us from relaxing our minds and enjoying any leisure time.
Some advocate a life without technology to promote spiritual growth, arguing that the use of modern technology is an evil which is to be avoided if we wish to maintain contact with the divine. What exactly is “modern” technology? Is it electronics? Is it electricity? Is it the wheel? The interval between harnessing fire and placing a satellite network in orbit around the earth is just a blip in geologic time. In terms of utility, there is little difference between creating a supercomputer and a flint knife.
Where do we draw the arbitrary dividing line on the timeline of technology to indicate what is harmful and what is beneficial or, at least, benign? And, if we abandoned all invented technology, and retreated back to the caves, would that be a boon for humanity, spiritual or otherwise? Is it really necessary to forego all modern conveniences in order to pursue our spiritual paths?
Henry David Thoreau exhorted us to “Simplify! Simplify!” But what is simpler: turning on a faucet to take a shower, or hiking several hours to immerse ourselves in the nearest stream? Is it simpler to turn the knob on a gas stove, or rub two sticks together to create a fire with which to cook dinner?
Many blame electronic devices for diminishing human interaction. Some decry automation as the ultimate ruination of society. Others point to the rapidly escalating rate of change as a portent of approaching calamity. Could such criticisms be a sparsely disguised resistance to change?
Change is inevitable, and a rapidly increasing pace of change is one of perception, not of reality. The building blocks of atoms formed within a second after the big bang. The cells of an embryo change and grow at a rate far faster than new computer chips can be developed, and they have been maintaining that rate of change for millennia. What is accelerating is the ability of humanity to effect change, but that ability still compares poorly to the rates of change found in nature.
The challenge presented to us by technology is the same challenge that is inherent in every aspect of our lives. It is one of balance. Technology simplifies the mundane tasks of life. Technology makes our labor more efficient. Technology makes business communications more effective. Our cars get us to work in the morning. Our computers allow us to perform many more calculations than if we had to draw lines in the sand. Our email accounts permit us to communicate reports faster than sending messengers on horseback.
When we rely on technology for our survival however, or when we use it to provide mind-numbing distractions or supplant our human interactions with artificial connectivity that encourages us to interact with others without ever knowing who they truly are, then we have developed a precarious over-dependence. Then, artificial reality overshadows what is genuine and real.
Is technology good or evil? Neither. Both. Now I put down my smart phone to say hello to the neighbor I met during the storm. Technology is what we make of it. We can use it as a crutch, as we do alcohol and drugs; or we can use it as a tool, like a hammer or a few well-chosen words.
Technology is not a golden pill for the modern human, nor is it inherently evil. Technology doesn’t diminish us, it enhances us. It extends our lives, frees our time and increases the opportunities to take advantage of both. Technology is a tool. We can allow it to rule our lives, or we can use it to simplify, simplify!